Since I was young, I have been told by society, “work hard and you will succeed.” And, guess what, the prescription worked.

Ah, but not so fast. I know many others that have worked hard as well and they haven’t been as fortunate. Also, I have met many people who have “made it” largely based on luck (having wealthy parents/family or merely occupying a high-paid, paper-pushing job). Is this fair?

I realize that I was very lucky too. Both of my parents are intelligent and educated. And my aunts and uncles are too. Additionally, I lived most of my life in Northern Virginia, which has very strong school systems. A good education can go a long way.

I also realize that I have other fortunate assets that have made it a lot easier for me to “make it.” I am “White” (though I have endured some discrimination due to my ethnic last name), I am a male, and I am taller than average. In the U.S., in 2016, “Whites” make nearly twice as much as African-American’s do and men still make ~27% more than women (ref 1, ref 2). (Notice that the stat I provide is higher than the one in the article–this is due to how one reports the difference. If you say that women make 79 cents for every dollar men make, you can equivalently say that men make 27% percent more (as 100 is 27% larger than 79) or you can talk about the “21% wage gap,” as does the article; which one highlights the severity of the problem better?). Also, interestingly, in the history of the US, the taller candidate for president has won 67% of the time, suggesting that being tall is a significant advantage (ref 3).

So, I have been lucky too, and I can’t complain. But, I don’t like to think that my accomplishments have been based on luck alone; I suspect others feel the same way about their “fortune.” Having studied environmental justice for the past 20 years, I am aware of how pervasive economic injustice still is, both here in the United States as well as internationally. Thus, I am not comfortable telling people “less fortunate” than me to “just work harder.” I recognize it often takes a lot more than “work” to succeed. So rather than just brazenly telling people what to do from my ivory tower, I do what I can in my local/regional environment to “pay it forward.” One example of this is my co-creation of a Time Bank in my community earlier this year; you can find out about it here. I don’t make these contributions out of guilt. I do it because I firmly believe that we will all be better when we all have better opportunities. Our economic system, which has largely lives by the principle that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” is a deceptive failure to increasingly many (ref 4). We need to do what we can to truly develop economic justice and opportunity for all. Only then will we make real progress.

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